12, 2006: A while back a group of medical researchers in
the Seattle area started to measure the concentration of organophosphorus
insecticides in the urine of pre-school children. Most children
had sizable concentrations well over FDA recommended safe levels.
Given what we are learning, I wonder if we scientists really know
enough to set a “safe toxic level” for kids confident
that it will still seem “safe” in the coming decades.
As in many scientific investigations, a few children were found
to be atypical. In this case, their toxic levels were way under
the rest of the kids measured. Interviewing the parents of these
rare cases, researchers learned that their parents chose certified
organic foods for the kids. With this tantalizing lead, the researchers
expanded their trial to evaluate equal numbers of children eating
conventional and organic diets. Again measuring urine samples, they
found a whopping eight-fold increase of organophosphate contamination
in the conventional non-organic group compared to the organic children.
These findings point to the importance of how food is produced
and how the exposure to synthetic chemistry varies accordingly.
Parents worried about their children’s exposure to contaminants
can take measures to help protect their brood by lessening and eliminating
these unnecessary toxic exposures. Eating organically certified
food or food you produce yourself without chemical inputs is a rational
protective step with benefits confirmed through rigorous scientific
Organophosphorus (also called organophosphate) insecticides were
originally developed in Germany during World War II. They act to
inhibit acetyl cholinesterase, an enzyme fundamental for nerve transmission
in humans, other mammals and insects. It takes a much higher dose
to kill a human than to kill a bug, but death by herbicide poisoning
is not the only problem. There is robust scientific literature showing
the ability of organophosphates to impact human developmental activity
at far below lethal doses, due in part to these compounds' tendency
to bio-accumulate within animals.
Our regulatory system mostly ignores the long-term effects of agrichemicals
as our bodies encounter their residues. Noted University of Wisconsin
animal scientist Warren Porter has shown that sub-toxic developmental
effects of agrichemicals and mixtures that form synergistic damage
are the Achilles Heel of the environmental regulatory system.
Organic farmers and consumers make many decisions to put health
first in how to farm and what to eat. Why would we willingly throw
the dice with our personal health or that of our family?
Porter points out that humans have the ability to de-toxify synthetic
chemical residues only after puberty. This is because a child’s
liver lacks key enzymes for this mission. Parents, nutritionists
and policymakers need to make food choices realizing that children
are much more vulnerable to chemical assault than are adults, and
will accumulate toxic substances over a longer timeframe.
Dr. Elizabeth Guillette from the University of Florida has studied
the influence of agrichemicals on the development of the Yaqui Indians
children in Mexico. She identified within the Yaqui tribe one group
which had accepted the introduction of chemical agriculture and
has resided in a valley where it is practiced extensively. Another
Yaqui group moved up into the surrounding hills to practice traditional
lifestyles, avoiding chemical agriculture.
Guillette’s studies identified that the chemically exposed
valley children lagged in every measurement of development including
coordination, learning and memory. Many of the valley children could
not draw the basic elements of a human even at 4 and 5 years old,
putting them into a group of people believed to have little or no
potential to develop appreciable social skills. The following illustration
shows typical examples of the drastic developmental difference associated
with valley (chemically exposed) and hill people who were largely
unexposed to chemical agriculture.
Atrazine, the most-applied corn herbicide in the U.S., is infamous
for washing into our surface and ground water, its persistence for
years in our soil and even its ability to invade our atmosphere.
Although this chemical is agriculturally banned in Switzerland (where
it was discovered and is manufactured), we still apply millions
of pounds annually throughout North America.
Scientific studies such as The Rodale Institute Farming Systems
Trial regularly show that atrazine is routinely found in water at
rates well over the EPA regulatory level. More importantly, research
led by Tyrone Hayes at the University of California shows that exposure
to even 1/30th of the regulatory dose changes male frogs into hermaphrodites.
It is critical to note that ambiguous sexual development in humans
is an epidemic in the United States. (You may not be aware of the
epidemic in birth defects we are having, but from 1978 to 1993 the
rate increased more than 5 times.)
A bright spot in this area is the finding that folic acid can reduce
spina bifida by 75 percent if administered to a mother one month
before or after conception. Information is now pointing to nitrates
as sources of superoxidants which cause the spinal lesions of spina
bifida. Folic acid seems to work as an anti-oxidant antidote to
the reactive chemistry causing the lesions. Atrazine and nitrate
invade our water system from herbicide and fertilizer use, respectively,
in corn. (Both are also common lawn chemicals.)
Even as evidence mounts showing how pesticides impact human health,
the industry has yet to own up to the full extent of its responsibility.
One measure of this disparity of what we know medically and how
we have yet to act in public policy is the fact that many doctors
recommend against breast feeding due to the high level of toxins
within breast milk.
The acknowledged negative impacts of agri-chemistry are accommodated
in current regulations because, regulators say, overall societal
benefits outweigh the risks. Unfortunately food consumers, not sufficiently
aware of all the dangers of agriculture chemistry, take the risks,
while the agrichemical industry derives the profits. We have yet
to see an agrichemical interest step forward to clean up any of
the contamination to our soil, water or air.
The proliferation of 10,000 registered chemicals which are tested
mostly by the chemical industry itself does not guarantee our children’s
safety. To the contrary, under the present system it guarantees
that our children will have multiple and repeated exposures to known
The good news is that more food grown with fewer chemicals is becoming
more accessible in North America, week by week. Parents, especially,
are seeking out certified organic food and other foods identified
as being more healthful. Currently about half of the parents in
North Americ—and more than 75 percent of European parents—are
opting for organic baby food. While this phase lasts for a short
period in a child’s life, it’s an important time and
signifies a commitment by parents safeguard their young ones.
Both the Seattle parents who served organic food and the traditional
Yaqui who literally took to the hills to avoid agricultural chemicals
show the wisdom of being proactive for healthy food. The future
of your children—and the farmers who want to raise their food—depends